In 2018, then-four-time host Ricky Gervais said that hosting the Golden Globes again would be the end of his career.
Gervais was thinking of the blowback he would likely receive from the gig in an increasingly polarized culture as a provocative comic whos known for offending people. But on January 5, he will indeed return to host the awards for a record fifth time.
NBC, which hosts the annual awards show, is leaning into the idea that Gervaiss hosting gig will be outlandish and unpredictable. Theres some justice to that: As Bafflers Brendan James put it in a rundown of Gervaiss career, Gervaiss only real claim on the publics attention in the past ten years has been his epic, renegade, no-holds-barred Golden Globes roast-a-thon, in which hes known for taking potshots at other celebrities and their failings, from Mel Gibsons alcoholism to Robert Downey Jrs drug abuse.
In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Gervais described his hosting style as wanting to represent the perspective of the viewer watching at home who wasnt invited into the room where it happens. But that descriptor downplays his habit of saying outrageous things both onstage and off. A look at Gervaiss standup history reveals that, far from being unpredictable, his comedy covers a pretty standard range of offenses, including taking cheap shots, doubling down on them, and getting defensive after the fact about people not getting the joke.
Gervais himself insists that punching down is a no-go: You mustnt make [identity factors] the target to be ridiculed, he told THR. You shouldnt laugh at something they cant help. ... Deep down, I want people to know Im not a racist or a homophobe or a sexist. But in the same interview, he also rails against political correctness: People like the idea of freedom of speech until they hear something they dont like.
This ambivalence means his Golden Globes gig will likely be a big swing from last years ground-breaking ceremony toward a more reactionary flavor. And while he may be on his best behavior for Sunday nights ceremony, its also likely we can expect Gervais to joke about everything from war with Iran to cancel culture itself.
How can we be so sure? Heres a selection of highlights from his previous comedy and performances, as well as other moments from his past history.
At the 2016 Golden Globes ceremony, Gervaiss opening monologue included a joke about Caitlyn Jenner that many viewers read as transphobic. After referring to her by her pre-transition name i.e. deadnaming her, a major dont if youre trying to support the transgender communities Gervais joked that while shed become a role model to trans women everywhere, she didnt do a lot for women drivers. The joke was a reminder that, in 2015, Jenner had been involved in a tragic four-car collision that left one person dead; Jenner bore no responsibility for the accident and was not charged and its likely audiences barely remembered the incident or understood Gervaiss point.
So Gervais went out of his way to reiterate his point multiple times first on Twitter, and then in his 2018 Netflix special, Humanity, where he made Jenner jokes that were far more explicitly transphobic than the joke he was trying to debunk as transphobic.
These additional jokes come in the middle of a segment in which Gervais describes creating a string of offensive jokes for his Golden Globes hosting gig including jokes about Bill Cosby raping various celebrities then ironically adds, Id never tell a joke like that, Id never even think of that ... Youre getting offended at a joke that doesnt exist.
Then he moved on to the Jenner joke. It wasnt transphobic in the slightest. It was a joke about a trans person, but the joke had nothing to do with that aspect of her existence. To make the argument, he then repeats the Golden Globes joke verbatim and attempts to explain it.
The target of the joke is a celebrity killing someone in their car, he says. A celebrity killing someone in their car, running home, and popping on a dress, he says.
He then goes on to discuss the deadnaming, in an extended segment in which he protests that he cant acknowledge that she used to be a man but she did! I saw him on the Olympic games! He then doubles down on the deadnaming and misgendering, doing both repeatedly. Its a deeply transphobic sketch in which he frames transgender identity as gaslighting him, while building a whole joke around Jenners anatomy.
He follows it all up by mocking the entire idea of transitioning by joking that hes going to transition into a chimpanzee.
This is just the most well-known example of Gervaiss transphobic humor. But as Lindy West noted in the New York Times after Humanitys release, his entire attitude toward trans identity is one of discomfort, and he present[s his] spasms of discomfort as something relatable.
Gervais recently drew backlash again for perceived transphobia just a few weeks ago. Shortly after the backlash over a transphobic tweet by J.K. Rowling, Gervais tweeted several things that many readers took as sardonic TERFdom.
He later clarified to THR that hed been playing along with a spoof Twitter account intended to parody white progressives, and had been intending to take the piss out of the parody account without acknowledging that he has a history of taking the piss out of trans identity itself.
Gervaiss history of mocking disabled identities is long. During his 2007 Fame standup tour, in particular, the comic courted controversy with this brand of humor. First came a segment in which he jokes about taking an autistic child to a casino the joke being that he ignorantly thought all autistic kids were like Dustin Hoffmans character in Rain Man. Then came a bit when he joked about chronic fatigue syndrome, known as ME: Not MS, he clarified, not the crippling, wasting disease. No, the thing that makes you say, I dont wanna go to work today.
He also stepped on toes with his portrayal of autism with his puzzling 2013 short series Derek, in which he revived a character hed created in 2001, Derek Noakes. Noakes who was originally a victim of child sexual abuse reads to many people as an adult man with autism, despite Gervaiss insistence that the character is actually just naive and gullible. Its worth noting that Gervais has also participated in fundraising events for autism support, and that he intended the character to be heroic, rather than a mockery; but many people had a muddled impression of the character, while the show itself drew mixed reviews.
Thankfully, his jokes here are rare, but theyre pretty dark. In the aforementioned Humanity special on Netflix, Gervais in the segment where he coyly discusses jokes that were too offensive for him to stay onstage by ... saying them onstage he briefly mocks Bill Cosbys victims by hypothesizing about which celebrities might be, essentially, unrape-able. First, he drops a slightly baffling joke implying that Helen Mirren is too much of a lady to be sexually assaulted. Then, he makes a fatphobic comment about Melissa McCarthy being too much of a beast to be subdued by the date rape drugs Cosby used in his assaults.
A third, extremely dark joke, is considered by some audiences to be one of Gervaiss best and by others to be among his most offensive for its trivialization of male sexual violence against women. The entire bit is built around a setup for a joke about child molestation, with an even darker twist joke about child sexual abuse at its center.
In late 2018, a Louis C.K. post-Me-Too comedy routine, which was still being workshopped through live performances, was leaked online, revealing a stretch of offensive material that mocked everyone from non-binary people to Parkland shooting victims.
Gervais spoke out in defense of Louis C.K., telling Vanity Fair in a 2019 interview that he sympathized with the other comedian for having jokes leaked while they were still in progress. But then he went further, once again blaming audiences for allegedly not understanding the jokes:
[C.K.s] got nothing against those [Parkland] kids. It was him pretending to be angry for comedy.
Two years ago, wed have got that. Wed have said, Oh yeah, hes being naughty. Now we go, No, he means it now. Now hes out in the cold; now hes an alt-right Nazi. Its ludicrous.
In other words, Gervais, joining many of his fellow comedians, blames cancel culture for destroying nuance in standup comedy, while also downplaying the reasons people find certain kinds of comedy offensive.
Remember that old segment from HBOs 2011s Talking Funny special that resurfaced in 2018 in which a bunch of male comics laugh at their own use of the n-word? In case youve forgotten which comics were involved in that delightful episode, here we have Chris Rock, a gleeful Louis C.K., a Ricky Gervais who seems hesitant at first but rapidly gets into the bit, and a Jerry Seinfeld who seems appalled the whole time.
This is important context for his assertion in the aforementioned THR interview that offensive humor is in the eye of the beholder:
Its a good thing to not be racist and sexist and homophobic. But its not a good thing to not be allowed to make jokes about those things, because you can tell a joke about race without being racist. Im happy to play by the rules. Its just that the 200 million people watching have different rules. Thats the plight. When people say, He crossed the line, I say, I didnt draw a line, you did. Its relative. Its subjective.
In the clip above, it almost appears that Gervais is re-drawing the line in front of our eyes, deciding that a line that couldnt be crossed seconds earlier saying the n-word is, in fact, fine.
What does all of this mean for Gervaiss 2020 Golden Globes appearance? Probably just where we were four years ago, the last time Gervais hosted the Globes: with Gervais taking potshots at various celebrities and pet progressive issues, then retreating into a defensive stance on social media. Brendan James notes in his Baffler piece that this disappointingly banal pattern has pretty much defined Gervaiss most recent career phase:
Gervais [abandoned] satire and storytelling and instead adopt[ed] a new comedic style of being incredibly logged-on and tweeting Have I offended you? Do you find me offensive? next to professionally shot photos of himself laughing. It is, in fact, a long way down from the brilliant work that made him famous.
This repetitive cycle means its probably too much to ask that Gervais undergo an attitudinal transformation before the Golden Globes ceremony and recognize that his transphobic jokes and other offensive jokes make life harder for real marginalized people.
But maybe this Sunday, with any luck, Gervais will just stick to mocking celebrities.
Ricky Gervais is hosting the Golden Globes. Expect controversy. - Vox.com